Coronavirus and human rights: What to look out for

Wednesday April 8 2020



Donald Rukare

Donald Rukare 

By Donald Rukare

The world is currently gripped in the throes of the gruesome coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Globally, as of April 6, John Hopkins University reported that we had a total of 1,292,564 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 70,798 deaths and quickly rising. The Covid-19, said to have emanated from Wuhan in China, is rapidly traversing the world with thousands of cases and deaths seen in Italy, Spain and the United States.

It is believed a surge of cases will be experienced in Africa as well. Uganda, according to the Ministry of Health, had confirmed 52 cases without any fatalities as at April 6. The government has announced and put in place several mitigation measures to stop the spread of the invisible deadly enemy Covid-19. These include inter alia stay at home orders, avoidance of large gathering, social distancing, regular washing of hands and a 7pm to 6.30am curfew.

The swift actions taken by President Museveni and the Ministry of Health are commendable. However, there are critical human rights issues that should be borne in mind during this emergency period.

It is vital that the well-intended and much needed life-saving measures are implemented taking fully cognisance of the inherent dignity fundamental to the wellbeing of all Ugandans. All the frontline actors should demonstrate respect for human dignity in the battle against this dreaded Covid-19 albeit the evident perilous circumstances we are in.

For example, the mainstream and social media reported cases of severe beatings and assaults allegedly occasioned by Local Defence Unit (LDU) personnel deployed to enforce the night curfew. Many, including journalists, have reportedly fallen victim. While President Museveni has castigated this, it is imperative that the LDUs are continuously and sufficiently guided by Article 20(1) of the Constitution of Uganda 1995 ( as amended), which mandates them to respect, uphold and promote human rights.

Security agencies are providing a vital law and order service, which we appreciate. However, they need to do so without excess and brutality. Such cruel and inhumane behaviour is not only wrong, but serves to further traumatise the already traumatized people. By the same token, Ugandans have a corresponding duty to be responsible and adhere to the health advisory in place. We all need to be responsible in this battle.

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Equality and freedom from discrimination is absolutely essential in terms of how the measures are rolled out and implemented. For example, no one should be excluded from government support under the ongoing food distribution programme on account of, for example sex, race, colour, ethnic origin, tribe, birth, creed or religion, social or economic standing, political opinion or disability.

This is perhaps in present times more acute in the health, education, economic and labor sectors. In this regard the standard operating procedures and measures announced by the various ministries, department and agencies as well as the Statutory Instruments (SI) issued under the Public Health Act Cap 281, are welcome.

It is important that these and those to come are anchored in a human rights framework. A human rights-based approach to Covid-19 calls for putting in place social and economic safety nets for those that will be affected in, for example, the labour market.

Evidently, the Covid-19 pandemic is causing uncertainty and apprehension even beyond Uganda. This has been exacerbated by several rumours, remedies and conspiracy theories, especially on social media. Providing access to information during this period is perhaps one of the most important duties the government can perform. It is, therefore, absolutely essential that accurate, credible, accessible, understandable and timely information is provided to all by the government.

In this respect, the regular briefings by President Museveni, Ministry of Health and recently the Ministry of Education and Sports are appreciated. Access to the truth and credible information during this time is vital to allay people’s fears.

This duty also extends to all public official as well as citizens. We should therefore insulate ourselves from information overload out there and try as much as possible stick to credible official sources. We have to take care of our own safety and wellness during this war.

The Covid-19 pandemic will no doubt come to an end. As we battle the virus, there is need to do so in a human rights friendly manner. This is a time we that should all harness our efforts to fight this enemy in a responsible manner. We have a duty to stay safe and together we can. We shall overcome Covid-19.

Rukare@FreedomHouse.org

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